The Unkillable Genre

The Daily — Oct 14, 2018
David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018)

Editors and contributors at Slant Magazine, one of the finest founts of online criticism since its launch in 2001, have drawn up an annotated list of the fifty “Greatest Horror Movies” of the twenty-first century—so far. Introducing the list, Budd Wilkins argues that the genre has retained its “power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies.”

Topping the list is a film that opened in Japan at the dawn of the millennium, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, not only “one of cinema’s most unnerving and suggestive ghost stories,” as Chuck Bowen calls it, but also a relatively early alert to the soul-sucking power of virtual communities. When, in the late spring of 2001, Pulse screened in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes, there was still no Facebook (launched in 2004), Twitter (2006), or Instagram (2010). As the laws of the movie business would have it, an American remake followed, trailed by two straight-to-DVD sequels. This sort of cheapening of an original vision is especially common in horror, and yet the genre perseveres. “For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback,” writes Wilkins, “there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes.”

Though they may be rare, some remakes and sequels actually do aim to do more than simply cash in on sheer name recognition. In a survey for the Ringer earlier this month of twenty-first century remakes of horror films from the 1970s and ’80s, both the good and the rotten, Keith Phipps suggests that Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007) is a special case in that it “works as a kind of mirror image” to John Carpenter’s 1978 original. And Zombie’s sequel, Halloween II (2009), comes in at #7 on Slant’s list. Editor Ed Gonzalez argues that if Carpenter’s serial killer, Mike Myers, was “almost a phantom presence,” Zombie has made him “unmistakably and chillingly real.” Not counting Zombie’s two entries in the franchise, there have been seven other sequels, and this year sees an all-new, Carpenter-approved Halloween that ignores them all, wiping the slate clean to pick up the original story forty years on.

Whether or not they like the new film as a whole, critics are all but unanimous in their praise for Jamie Lee Curtis, who returns as Laurie Strode, the babysitter in the original who’s now a grandmother praying for the return of Mike Myers. “Strode has been converted, Sarah Connor-style, into a shotgun-toting shut-in with more than a hint of crazy about her,” notes Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf. “That’s a great reason to remake Halloween: Everyone’s waving around a gun these days, and the idea that the survivor of the so-called ‘Babysitter Murders’ would, forty years later, become a militia-worthy nut with murderous instincts of her own has a sad symmetry to it.” At Vulture, David Edelstein goes so far as to suggest that this year’s model is “the #MeToo Halloween, the one that says the body never forgets the memory of assault, and that the trauma is passed down to future generations in all sorts of unpleasant ways.”

When the new Halloween premiered in Toronto, reaction from Rolling Stone’s David Fear was mixed. On the one hand, director David Gordon Green and cowriter Danny McBride “have clearly studied Halloween ’78 like holy scripture, taking a lot of their cues from Carpenter’s tension-release idea of slasher stalking and how he used the frame to withhold info, goose viewers, conjure unbearable levels of fear.” But on the other hand, “it’s hard not to feel that this love letter is so caught up in its admiration for its source material that you occasionally get that wax-museum-with-a-pulse feeling.” But Mallory Andrews, writing for Cinema Scope, admires the way that this Halloween “leans into the idea of Myers as a manifestation of pure Evil, and the ways such darkness can imprint itself upon us. Thankfully, the 2018 version of the Boogeyman is devoid of any supernatural backstory to explain his unnatural longevity: he’s a uniquely cinematic evil, who needs only the power of reboots, remakes, and sequels to be endlessly resurrected.” Meantime, you can be sure that this year’s fortieth anniversary of the premiere of Carpenter’s original is being well marked all around, most notably with Bruce Fretts’s oral history for the New York Times and Amy Nicholson’s comprehensive podcast series for the Ringer.

A year before Carpenter unleashed his sleek slashing machine, Dario Argento, whom Carpenter has cited as an influence on Halloween, released a film that drew from an entirely different aesthetic tradition. As Adam Nayman puts it at the Ringer, “Suspiria is first and foremost an exercise in atmosphere, drawing power from confusion and disorientation, and leaning into its nonsensical aspects.” October 25, the Friday after this Friday’s release of the new Halloween, sees the opening of a new Suspiria, more a reimagining than a remake, directed by Luca Guadagnino, whose own international breakthrough was last year’s Call Me by Your Name. Guadagnino has shifted the setting from Freiburg to Berlin, where a young American ballet student slowly realizes that the dance school she’s attending houses a coven of witches.

Profiling Guadagnino for the New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes that where Argento’s Suspiria “was brightly colored and campy, Guadagnino builds his setting unironically, in layers, from a Fassbinderian backdrop of browns and blues and grays. The movie reaches downward, to Germany’s ugly past treatment of bodies, and upward, to a mental realm of ritual and symbol: Freudian, creative, and occult. And it tells a coming-of-age story about mastering creative and destructive strength. Suspiria is very much a horror film: flesh is ripped; bones are broken; heads explode. Guadagnino also calls it the most personal movie that he has made.”

When it premiered in Venice, Giovanni Marchini Camia sent in a first impression to Filmmaker, noting that Guadagnino “borrows Argento’s basic premise but completely reworks the plot,” creating “something wholly original and much more ambitious—though, thankfully, no less bonkers.” In the “Grand Guignol finale,” Guadagnino “goes for broke in an extended orgy of ritualistic violence that, although a mess on every level—aesthetic, thematic, narrative—is exhilarating in its sheer lack of restraint.” At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang went even further, suggesting that this Suspiria plays like “high-class horror-porn, and I mean that as an immense, tumescent compliment.” For Kiang, despite a few missteps, such as the unnecessary conjurings of both the Holocaust and the “German Autumn” of 1977, when the country was gripped by the threat of domestic terrorism, Guadagnino’s Suspiria works best as “a long, deliriously filmic, primal banshee-howl of macabre imagination that leaves us hormonal and drunk on that lovely delusion: the beautiful, thrilling, lurid lie of cinema.”

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